Friday, February 7, 2014

30 For 30: Mystery Science Theater 3000

I turn 30 on February 18th. I want to celebrate this, and get myself back into writing, by spending a few weeks rambling about the 30 things that have meant the most to me over the years. These will be from music, movies, books, videogames, and maybe even art and other things for good measure. I feel like my life has been much more about the things I've experienced than it has the people I've known or the places I've traveled to, and these 30 things have helped to make my 30 years more than worth all the innumerable bad things. Expect heartfelt over-sharing and overly analytical explanations galore! In part 5, I mean, "in the not too distant future..."
 It seems with any TV show that comes to an end, people will spend years afterward arguing for one of two things: either that it ended too soon, or that it should've been cancelled several seasons ago. What's more, a show needn't be over for this debate to happen. Anyone who brings up The Simpsons on the Internet will quickly this find out. The edge cases are those TV shows which were on the air for a fair number of years and never really had a chance to decline in quality. I'm sure there are thousands of people who would watch more Breaking Bad or The Sopranos if given the chance, but after five and six seasons of each, respectively, it's hard to argue that they ended before their time, and certainly no one feels they should've ended sooner. With TV shows that lean more toward the dramatic/plot focused side of things, though, it becomes very difficult to continually come up with new stories and things for the characters to do without a series chasing its own tail or falling down the slope of quality.

With TV shows that lean more toward the comedic/entertainment focused side of things, they can go on perpetually as long as they give the audience what it wants at the same level of quality. More than The Simpsons did during its prime, I think South Park has become the standard bearer of this ideal. Certainly there are always some forgettable or thrown-together episodes each year, but after 17 seasons I still don't see many people complaining that it should've stopped years ago, like I do with Family Guy or The Simpsons. Don't even get me started on debating the merits of bringing back shows like Family Guy and Futurama from cancellation, or we'll be here all day. But seriously, Simpsons should've ended like a decade ago.

Post-Season 10 Simpsons: it stinks.

Which brings me to Mystery Science Theater 3000, a show that never came back from a cancellation but did nearly end at one point before returning for three more seasons. It's an odd case because, while I think the cast and crew were talented enough to have done another few years, I also think it had the perfect amount of seasons. Since each episode is as long as a movie (literally), it's hard to get greedy about wishing there was more MST3k because there is already so much of it, from a standpoint of sheer time alone. With close to 200 episodes, each one (roughly) an hour and a half long, you've got (roughly) 300 hours of viewing to get through if you want to experience the whole series. To put this in perspective, there have been (roughly) 540 episodes of The Simpsons, which is 2.7 times as many as MST3k. At an average of 24 minutes per episode, though, it's only got (roughly) 216 hours of viewing to experience.

I'm not great at math so I should end this digression and move on.

When I wrote about Jackie Brown two years ago, I referred to it as a great 'hang out' movie. I defined it as such: “'Hang out' movies are, to me anyway, the sort of films where the the overall plot is subservient to getting interesting characters together to do and say interesting things.” I think this is why MST3k works so well, because it's a 'hang out' TV show. Since every episode is so long compared to the average TV show, you end up spending a lot of time with the characters. At a certain point it becomes like watching movies with friends, albeit really smart and funny friends you can't interact with to, say, go get you another beer as long as they're already up and getting one for themselves. Of course there were always groups of friends watching movies and making fun of them together before MST3k existed, and there are people who do it now without any awareness of the show. Yet there's a world of difference between the rapid fire, crafted jokes of MST3k and your drunk friends improvising lewd comments or saying “this sucks” over and over. Sure, the latter is still fun, but it's like comparing a bar fight to a boxing match.

Speaking of fights: where do you fall on Joel vs. Mike as host? When I discovered the show it was late in its life, so as far as I knew Mike was the only host. I always tended to lean toward him because I'm more familiar with his era but over the past two or three years, thanks to torrents, Netflix, and Hulu, I'm now right in the middle, leaning toward neither Joel nor Mike. To me it's just great that we got to have two hosts who were equally good and brought their own feel to the series. If the show had become as successful as The Simpsons and persisted for ten more seasons, it would probably have had another host at some point that everyone ended up hating. The only upside would be that Mike and Joel fans would have stopped arguing with each other and joined forces to hate this theoretical third host together.

Dividing fans quicker than Kirk Vs. Picard since 1993

With Joel Vs. Mike, keep in mind that you don't have to choose. As I said, I don't, and it depends on my mood and many other factors anyway. It's like asking me to choose between pizza and burgers; I need more context to make a choice: what time of day is it, am I sober, am I in a good or bad mood, am I at home or somewhere else? I suppose if I'm in a good mood, I go for Joel episodes. His era tends to be free-wheeling and goofy; he and the bots might really hate a movie but they're usually not mean spirited about it and try to amuse themselves along the way. Mike's era is more cynical and sarcastic; it's what I go for when I need to see a crappy movie get flayed alive because I'm in a bad mood and I need help to bring me out of it. Still, it's true that both of these styles existed to some extent in both eras—after all, Mike was the head writer for a time before he took over hosting duties when Joel left.

MST3k has been a longtime love of mine and I had no idea that it was as important to other people until I got on the Internet. It wasn't like with EarthBound, where I didn't think anyone else but me loved it and was obsessed with it. After all, MST3k was on TV, and had been so for years. But thanks to the Internet, I realized how crucial it had been to shaping the comedic sensibilities of a generation-and-a-half of people. It isn't like The Simpsons where it's ubiquitous and people regularly reference episodes or quote lines they've memorized to make people laugh; MST3k is more about the way it makes you look at movies, and I would argue, the world around you, too. I think I'm often so quick with sarcastic remarks and one-liners because I was trained by the masters. Training is better than memorizing. While I often quote or reference specific Simpsons jokes, I've never learned jokes from MST3k and used them verbatim in real life. Rather, I learned how they saw the world and how their sense of humor functioned, and I subconsciously began to imitate it.
 I'm probably the only person who likes the Godzilla episodes more

The strangest thing about my longtime love for MST3k is that when I was younger I only understood about half of the jokes. I'm almost embarrassed to admit that for a period of years I thought of the show as being akin to New Yorker cartoons, in that back then I assumed any humor I didn't understand was too high brow for my adolescent brain. If I didn't get a joke from MST3k or a cartoon from New Yorker, I assumed they were too smart for me, when really it was a product of being too young and immature to understand them. There is also the obscurity factor. If you don't have a thorough knowledge of pop culture from the 1960s onward, you could be the smartest person in the world—someone who understands every New Yorker cartoon, even—and many MST3k jokes will go right over your head. I still don't know some of the reference points they're pulling from, but thanks to the fansite The Annotated MST3k, you can now look up anything from (practically) any episode of the series.

Despite this 50/50 ignorance of MST3k's references, the show served as a respite for my younger self. After being forced to go to church with my family week after week, I used to come home and watch the rest of whatever episode was on SciFi Channel that morning. It unknowingly became a ritual that I felt counter-acted the religion I was increasingly moving away from. MST3k isn't anti-religious but I think you know what I mean. In other times of my life I had an author or a band or a favorite cocktail or a girlfriend to be there for me, to help me endure the things I didn't want to have to endure, but had to for whatever reason. In that period of my life (1997ish through 2000ish), MST3k was there for me. Even though going to church meant missing the first half of each episode, the limited viewings were like a window into another world I wished I inhabited, where there were people who talked and thought like I did, only way more funny and articulate.

It occurred to me at some point last year that MST3k is my favorite TV show of all time. I wasn't even actively thinking about what my favorite show was, it simply popped into my head as a fact the way one's wandering mind might arrive at “you know, strawberry Starburst is my favorite flavor” while waiting in line at the DMV. My reasoning may be suspect because it's not like I'm a superfan who watches it every day; I'm by no stretch an expert on the show. I wish I could at least give my own list of top episodes but I can't because I couldn't possibly decide. Not because I have too many favorites, but because—past the rough first season or two of the show—I think of every episode as my favorite, as essential. I laugh more at some episodes, I think some of them have movies that are better or worse as fodder for jokes, but I have never seen anything close to a mediocre or outright bad episode. Even other TV shows that would make a list of my favorites have a handful of episodes that I find to be subpar or not worth watching again. When it comes to MST3k, though, I am down to watch any episode, any time, even if I have already seen it multiple times. So I figure, it's by default my favorite show.

Now...which one do you want to watch?

This one is great, but you knew that

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